When Wolf Truly heads for one of Southern California’s highest mountains on his 18th birthday, it’s not to celebrate but to jump to his death from the summit.
It is only when he meets three women lost on the slopes that his suicide mission becomes instead a gripping tale of adventure, sacrifice and survival in the unforgiving, snowy wastelands of majestic Mount San Jacinto near Palm Springs.
Lori Lansens, whose debut novel Rush Home Road took the world by storm in 2002, returns with this terrific novel which plays a delicate and mesmerising balancing act between survival thriller and heart-wrenching domestic drama.
As the temperature plummets and the mountain’s desert scrub turns to dangerous alpine wilderness, Wolf’s other painful journey from dysfunctional childhood to teenage death wish becomes achingly clear through a series of revealing flashbacks.
For five days, Wolf and the three women – different generations of the same family – will be tested to the extreme, and only three people will make it back.
Wolf Truly’s birthday is also the anniversary of the day his best friend Byrd died in a terrible tragedy and he returns to Mount San Jacinto, where the freak accident happened, consumed by guilt and determined to take his own life.
The mountain had been the boys’ paradise and escape and as Wolf makes that same journey again, he is intent on leaping to his death. Instead he encounters three women wandering in the wilderness and ends up agreeing to help them get to a mountain lake.
When the weather suddenly deteriorates, and through a series of missteps, the group becomes stranded on a lethal ridge with the lights of the city twinkling below, so close and yet so terrifyingly far away.
Lost in the wilderness for five days, Wolf and the women are tested to the extreme. Those who survive the ordeal will do so through a mixture of bravery, determination and self-revelation.
Years later, we learn that Wolf has never told his son Danny, or anyone else for that matter, what happened on the mountain but he can’t put it off any longer. And in telling the story to his only child, he at last explores both his past and the sacrifices people make for love.
Lansens uses the towering Mount San Jacinto as the central, powerful metaphor for her riveting novel which pits cruel nature against humanity, beauty against destruction, fear against bravery and hope against despair.
Wolf’s story is not just about surviving terrible hardship on the mountain; he must also overcome the rigours and heartbreak of his early years by discovering that human ties can be forged under the most dreadful conditions.
Written with breathtaking pace, tingling with suspense, leavened by humour and high on emotion and drama, The Mountain Story is one of the most memorable and moving novels you will read this year.
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £14.99)